UK cancer survival rates lagging behind

Staffing shortages mean chances of survival are behind other similar high-income countries, says leading cancer charity

Wednesday 11th September 2019

Cancer survival in the UK has improved since 1995 but still lags behind other high-income countries, according to new analysis by the international cancer benchmarking partnership (ICBP), managed by Cancer Research UK (CRUK).

In Scotland, survival has improved but one-year survival rates for oesophageal, stomach, rectal, pancreatic, lung and ovarian cancers still fall below the UK average.

3.9 million cases of cancer were looked at as part of the study, spanning from 1995 to 2014 and across seven countries – Australia, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway and the UK.

Encouragingly, one-year and five-year survival rates improved across all seven cancer sites in the UK across the 20-year period.

Five-year survival for rectal cancer in the UK rose by 14 percentage points since 1995, from 48% to 62%.

The UK has also had one of the highest increases in five-year survival – almost 12 percentage points – across all countries for colon cancer.

One-year survival for lung, ovarian and oesophageal cancer all increased by around 15% over the last 20 years.

Though progress has been made, the UK remains near the bottom of the rankings and has not yet caught up with the other countries.

The findings for Scotland broadly follow those for the whole of the UK. One and five-year survival rates across all seven cancer sites included in the study improved, but the rate of progress has been slower than some cancer sites in other UK nations..

And while survival has improved in Scotland, one-year survival rates for oesophageal, stomach, rectal, pancreatic, lung and ovarian cancers fall below the UK average.

In June of this year health secretary Jeane Freeman confirmed the NHS in Scotland was looking into bringing in shorter waiting times for less survivable cancers such as pancreatic, liver and brain cancer.

Gordon Matheson, CRUK’s public affairs manager in Scotland, said: “More people than ever before are surviving cancer thanks to research and targeted improvements in care.

“But, while we’re on the right track, the numbers show we can certainly do better.

“We will not see the necessary improvements in early diagnosis and equal access to treatment unless we have enough of the right staff across our health service in Scotland.

“Staff shortages need to be addressed because, quite simply, it will give people a better chance of surviving their cancer. If we are to achieve world class cancer outcomes, the NHS in Scotland must get a grip on workforce planning at national level in order to meet current and future patient need.”

This is the first international study to look at changes in cancer survival alongside incidence and mortality for cancers of the oesophagus, stomach, colon, rectum, pancreas, lungs and ovaries.

Exploring these three key measures – survival, incidence and mortality – allows for a better understanding of how countries like the UK compare in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of different cancers.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said:

“To support people who have survived cancer, we recently announced a partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support, backed by £18m of funding, to ensure every cancer patient has access to a key support worker.

“On Monday, the cabinet secretary for health met with many of Scotland's leading cancer charities to discuss how to tackle inequalities in cancer together, and make sure cancer survival improves for all Scotland's communities.

“Our £100m cancer strategy is investing in a wide range of actions to improve survival including ensuring we have the right cancer workforce in place and we are working with key partners like cancer research UK on this.”